This year, early January was darker than usual, despite all of the glitter. I’ve always found the glitter, the sequins, and the gold and silver balloons more foul than romantic. They are all glitz with none of the healthy decadence, none of the charm. But usually, even if dismal, they are easy to dust off or brush aside. This year, the glitter proved surprisingly sticky, and the balloons atrophied before I had the chance to pop them. They crept around on the carpet between my ankles like a fat cat. They seemed to weigh a lot as well, pressing down around me with the pressure of futility, of trying to patch some sort of coherence onto the year just finished, of trying to build some into the existence I set out to execute. I think I took New Year’s as I did because just after, with no breathing room, came my birthday. Of course, it always falls this way, but this year I turned twenty.
As a rule, I appreciate reasons to celebrate. Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day, Valentine’s day, Grandparents’ day, Friends’ day, Hallmark holidays whose kitsch makes up their skeletons, National Coffee Day, National Donut Day, National Peanut Butter Day. Other people’s birthdays. They are all wonderful, optimistic, crowd-pleasing reasons to be delighted. New Year’s and my birthday have fallen into that category before, but this year, those specially demarcated days that exist so that I, in particular, can count the passage of time became wholly other. They were a new and uncanny combination of cyclic recurrence and linear tallying that I was suddenly aware of and couldn’t figure out what to do with.
What was so different about turning twenty? I think it was because I imagined my parents meeting new people and saying that they have a child who is twenty. It means I have passed something. That is to say, I have disappointed already. Those features or skills that might have developed declined to this point, and now they never will. Former promise has resigned itself. In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace describes this age as “postlatency and puberty and angst and impending adulthood, etc.,” a time of “intrapsychic storms, etc.” I appreciate his flippancy, his nod to the absurdity of said storms. And still, he is right about unprecedented.
So there are all the things I have failed at already, all the things I can’t be. But turning twenty is also the nexus of disappointment and new promise. It’s the decade I might get married or have a child or get a doctorate, or fail more absolutely than I ever could have in the past if I had tried. I’m suddenly accountable for things.
Perhaps it was also due to those words I heard my parents use in my imagination, because they would not say “child.” They would say daughter. We have a daughter who is twenty. There is something particularly strange in the aging of a woman. My time means something different than that which it does to male people. Men my age may or may not yet have facial hair, but women are decidedly post-pubescent. It’s that biological clock, you know? The same one that is the crux of its fair share of romantic comedies, or serious subplots in serious dramas, when it reaches the later years of possible childbearing. I was watching it move at a much earlier hour, but I was acutely aware of its motion. A woman’s time is different entirely because a woman changes with it. I thought of my friend Emily, who has a conch shell on her shelf. I asked her where she got it because I like shells: they begin as wombs and end as graves, and they fragment magnificently. “Panama,” she said. “The animal was still alive in it when I found it.”
“How did you get it out?”
“I paid a man to do it. A local on the beach who would do it for tourists. He offered. He just scooped it out with his hand and threw it back into the water.” When she said that, I wondered, which was worse: to find empty or make empty.
Those clocks play a long-term game also, beyond the turmoil of twelve to nineteen and the slow decline twenty to late forties. One of my teachers is in her seventies, and a year ago, though usually relatively agile, she began finding it difficult to walk. She was x-rayed, and the doctor told her she had no hip, no right hip at all. It had simply dissolved, and it was a miracle she was moving. She hobbled around for a few months in wonderment, milking that miracle, until her surgery came. Now, an x-ray of her pelvis has all the soft gray-scale gradations of bones and skeletal structure and a sudden white solid hip of cobalt-chromium alloy. If it wasn’t real that one of the rites of passage of womanhood is that your bones disintegrate when you get old enough, someone would certainly have made it a metaphor.
The thing with feminine aging—forget hormones, forget calcium levels—is this idea that we might not make it. Female characters love to go insane, and we love it when they do. We still venerate Ophelia: Starbucks’ new checkout treat is called Ophelia Chocolate, individually wrapped sick little hearts on pink paper. This aspect of aging was on my mind in particular because I accidentally started Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar on New Year’s Day over breakfast (it did not add any optimism to my drama, which probably I should have expected). Mid-descent, Esther writes, “I saw the years of my life spaced along a road in the form of telephone poles, threaded together by wires. I counted one, two, three. . . nineteen telephone poles, and then the wires dangled into space, and try as I would, I couldn’t see a single pole beyond the nineteenth.” I wrote in the margin: “I turn twenty tomorrow.”
It ticked to 11:58 just as I got in that night, and it had been, of all things, raining. I thought of Isabel Archer, from Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady: “A crude, cold rain fell heavily…. Isabel, however, gave as little heed as possible to cosmic treacheries; she kept her eyes on her book and tried to fix her mind.” I had never so appreciated her. No matter what she does, she never goes insane. I toweled off my hair. The next time I looked at my phone the numbers blinked to 00:00. Though all of the unsolicited reflection hung around in the corners, I felt a little like I had stuck it to someone. A twentieth lamp-post, and here I was, drying off. There was still some glitter in my hair from the night before, but I scrubbed it out when I washed it.